By Aneesah Nadir –
When members of the local Phoenix Muslim community heard about the passing of Muhammad Ali, who many consider the world’s most famous Muslim, they expressed a variety of emotions.
For example, Zarinah Nadir, a local attorney, reminisced about memories of Ali’s visit to Arizona for Eid prayers in 1992 at Jaharutul Islam Mosque in South Phoenix, the first mosque built in Arizona. “He warmed the hearts of young and old community members that day.”
Then, questions about his Janazah started circulating. Though his funeral and burial would be in Louisville, Kentucky, Phoenix Muslims were compelled to do something to honor their brother who lived in the area for the past 10 years. “We must do something to honor him, he was the People’s Champ and our Muslim brother,” said Mohamed Belgaid, owner of Phoenicia Cafe.
A team of committed volunteers from the Islamic Community Center of Tempe (ICC) sprang into action to bring together Muslims, people of other faiths and those of non-faith traditions to pray for and remember their brother, Muhammad Ali. Ahmed Ewais, funeral chaplain at ICC, helped to wash and prepare Muhammad Ali for burial.
“People of various faiths will be looking for a place to demonstrate their love and appreciation for Ali. If we open up the masjid doors this will be so beautiful inshaAllah (God willing),” said Nadir.
Community members and guests from various faiths gathered June 5 in the mosque to hear tales of the renowned athlete and revered figure who seemed to transcend all boundaries of faith, race, culture, and creed. Numerous guest speakers were welcomed to the mic during the event to share how Ali personally impacted their lives. Their stories drew laughter and solemn reflection.
For some, Ali’s boxing had little to do with their admiration for him. His character was what drew them to follow his career and what ultimately created lifelong bonds with a man many had never met.
“When I was in Pakistan, I knew [about] Muhammad Ali very well. I was a kid. We were in a poor country. We hardly had any news media or television broadcasting but when Muhammad Ali was going to fight his fight…they made sure that they broadcast his fights and we were really lucky to see all his great fights. Everybody looked forward to him and they really admired his personality. He was an honest man. He was a strong man. He was a freedom fighter. We all respected him very [much]. He [spoke] whatever he had in his heart and I admire that and I always, from childhood ’til now,” said Syed Haroon, a longtime community member.
Some called for those in attendance to take Ali’s life as a guide for their own.
“Yes, he made his living, his fame and glory in the ring but he stood for a lot more outside of it,” said Adel Belgaid, founder of One Humanity. “There’s a reason why he was so successful. He stood for passion, passion in the ring, passion outside of the ring…passion for humanity.”
During the Phoenix community remembrance, Angelica Lindsey-Ali, a community activist, reminded everyone that there was a time in America when Muhammad Ali was one of the most hated men in America. “He was unapologetically Black, and unashamedly Muslim,” she said. Muslim Americans continue to be proud that he stood up for Islam and was very publicly, Muslim. Even when he was offered to have his star and name placed on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, he declined because he didn’t want people to walk on the name he took from the Prophet Muhammad. As a result, Muhammad Ali’s name is the only one up on a wall, shared another speaker, Azra Hussein of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Arizona.
The event closed with a prayer for Ali and his family.
In his early days, Muhammad Ali became a student of Malcolm X. He joined the Nation of Islam as a young man in late 1963 but it wasn’t formally announced until he won the heavyweight championship title in February 1964. He changed his name from Cassius Clay, which he considered his slave name, to Muhammad Ali. He firmly reminded the media and others that his new name, his Muslim name was Muhammad Ali even though they continued to call him Cassius Clay. He modeled the strength and importance to show pride in one’s name.
In 1975, in the largest mass conversion in America, Muhammad Ali converted to orthodox Islam under the leadership of Imam W.D. Muhammad. He lived his life standing up for the values of Islam through his consistent charitable service to humanity and his unwillingness to relent to threats of injustice.
Muhammad Ali was proud to a Black man, to be Muslim, and to be American. He was strong. He was courageous. He gave people the courage to stand tall even if they didn’t have typical American names. For so many, he stood as a testament to the idea that anything could be accomplished if one put their heart into it. His unique and poetic rhetoric became a symbol for the power of arguing a beautiful argument. He was a formidable role model of the importance of caring for people and bringing people together, as the faith of Islam taught him.
“His passing awakened me,” said local attorney Wasan Awad. “It reminded me of our ultimate destination and that before we get there, we have work to do, work for humanity, which ultimately is work we are doing for our own salvation.”